State of Racism conference ends on hopeful note

Unpacking racism is painful, scary, life-giving work, Mississippi bishop says

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Nov 18, 2013
Four participants talk about what they have learned during the Nov. 15-16 “Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America” gathering at the Diocese of Mississippi’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Four participants talk about what they have learned during the Nov. 15-16 “Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America” gathering at the Diocese of Mississippi’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Jackson, Mississippi] Judging by the report-back from three rounds of small-group discussion, participants in the Nov. 15-16 “Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America,” left here with hope and renewed dedication.

Navita Cummings James, chair of the Executive Council Committee on Anti-Racism, and the Rev. Angel Ifill, the church’s missioner of Black Ministries, moderated the gathering’s final discussions during which participants were asked to consider the top three things they had learned or had had reinforced during the gathering, how they would personally promote racial healing and understanding, and then how they would work to combat institutional racism.

One group’s spokesperson said its members agreed that “the universality of pain” had been reinforced by the conversations of the past two days.

“We need to have patience with those who would not come to a forum like this,” said one participant, reporting on what her small group had learned.

In terms of promoting racial understanding and healing, another participant said his group agreed that it would be important “to trace out your own narrative or your own trajectory of racial experiences [because] it’s going to help you reach other people if you are clear on your own story.”

More than one participant suggested that the conversations begun during the gathering needed to be continued, in the words of one, “whether that’s in our individual churches, the chamber of commerce or other groups that we may be a part of.”

One of the younger participants noted that because of the gathering “even for someone in our group who has been in the movement for a long time, there is fresh hope.”

In his closing remarks, Diocese of Mississippi Bishop Duncan Gray III noted that “more than a few folks have wondered – some of them out loud in my presence – about the appropriateness of a conversation on racism being hosted by the Episcopal Church in Mississippi.”

Saying he understood those questions, Gray recalled what Martin Luther King Jr. said during his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago: “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

Gray said he “would be first to admit the wolf has not laid down with the lamb” in his state.

The Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray Jr., the seventh bishop of Mississippi, son of the fifth bishop of Mississippi and father of current diocesan Bishop Duncan Gary III, listens to a presentation Nov. 16 on the second day of the “Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America” gathering at the Diocese of Mississippi’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray Jr., the seventh bishop of Mississippi, son of the fifth bishop of Mississippi and father of current diocesan Bishop Duncan Gary III, listens to a presentation Nov. 16 on the second day of the “Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America” gathering at the Diocese of Mississippi’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

“Nor have we been transformed in an oasis of freedom and justice 50 years later and yet, yet, I am hopeful precisely because I am a child and a native son of this conflicted, heroic, tragic and often violent state,” he said.

“I am hopeful that an honest look at our past and a willingness to listen to stories of individuals and communities that we had never known or wanted to know will move us in important ways toward healing, maybe even reconciliation.”

The bishop said he was hopeful because “as I unpack the layers of racism deeply embedded in my own soul – often taking the form of very personal, sometimes unconscious racial profiling within my own soul – I have thousands of fellows travelers across this state, some of whom are here, who are doing that same very painful, very scary, very life-giving work.”

Gray challenged the rest of the church and the country “if even Mississippi, a state sweltering with injustice and oppression 50 years ago can do this, why can’t others?”

The Nov. 16 plenary sessions, workshops and discussions formed the second of two days of work examining the state of racism in the U.S., how far the country and its people have come, and considering the work yet to be done.

The Rev. Jim Kodera, a native of Japan and the first Asian-American ordained a priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts, tells a historical narrative of the plight of Asians in America and of Asian Americans during a Nov. 16 workshop that was part of the “Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America” gathering at the Diocese of Mississippi’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The Rev. Jim Kodera, a native of Japan and the first Asian-American ordained a priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts, tells a historical narrative of the plight of Asians in America and of Asian Americans during a Nov. 16 workshop that was part of the “Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America” gathering at the Diocese of Mississippi’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

During one of six concurrent workshops that morning, the Rev. James T. Kodera, Wellesley College professor of religion and rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Hudson, Massachusetts, presented a “historical narrative of the plight of Asians in America and of Asian Americans.” During a subsequent discussion with those who attended the workshop, he suggested “there have to be multiple histories. We have to reject any notion of established history, official history because every history is selective and purposive.”

“You have to together write new histories,” said Kodera, a native of Japan who was the first Asian-American to be ordained in the Diocese of Massachusetts. “I think it is our obligation to have the courage to write alternative history so that we can embrace multiple histories” in order to see a more complete picture of the country.

The State of Racism gathering was sponsored by the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Mississippi and held at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson, Mississippi.

ENS coverage of the gathering’s opening session on Nov. 15 is here. An ENS series of video reflections from the conference are here.

The Nov. 15 webcast, which included a keynote address by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and two panel discussions, is available for on-demand viewing here. A discussion guide developed for the forum is available.

A related bibliography and other resources are available here.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


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Comments (5)

  1. Norm Morford says:

    There needs to be a network through which info may flow to those of us not in attendance.

    Muchas gracias!

  2. Julie Watt Faqir says:

    I am sorry, but what is the point of that headline, if it hadn’t ended on a hopeful note what on earth would the headling have been?

    I applaud the Diocese for putting on the Conference but the headline just seemed absurd to me

  3. Nancy Mott says:

    I’m seconding both previous comments. Having read Dr. Harold T. Lewis’s wonderful account “Yet With A Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church,” I’m heart-sickeningly aware of our church’s long history of conferences, studies and resolutions on racism ending with hope but not determination. I believe that deep-down we whites lack both 1) a real gut-level understanding of the complexity of racism in our country and in our Church and 2) true determination to repent and change. We give blithe lip-service to hopes for racial progress but don’t really put high in our priorities. And we totally don’t “get” how much we ourselves (whites) are also the losers in being so largely a White church. As James Baldwin said, “I have to be Black as long as you are White.”

  4. Margaret Ayers says:

    While headlines in the newspapers highlight racial divides in the United States, it was helpful to me to come together with other like minded people who are working to continue the change that is ongoing in our cultures. I believe that many people are working in their communities to bring about change and need a conference to spark new vision as well as find out that no one is working alone. There are many who are working without recognition in their communities as mechanisms of change. But this is hard work and we all need to see were our racism lies hidden. The reason we ended in hope is that although we look as though we are stuck in place, there has been change. I now live in Mississippi and am amazed at the changes that have taken place. I have great opportunities to work for racial reconcilliation and awareness but whatever I do will not be noticed outside my community. I also believe there are thousands of people working in their communities without recongnition from anyone outside. Hidden work needs to be brought into the wider awareness or we do look like we are doing nothing of value.
    In the article above there are links to materials from the conference. Whatever we do, keep the conversation going in all cultures and contexts!

  5. The Rev. Mary S. Janda says:

    Thank you, Margaret, for your words of hope and advice. I, too, believe that “hidden work needs to be brought into the wider awareness”. The work to overcome racism is a never-ending process. When events, articles, and daily words continue to show that racism still exists, we must do all we can to counter racism with more personal encounters by all people seeking reconciliation and better understanding. Thank you also for pointing out the links

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